Q: What’s the essential idea behind FQXi?

Aguirre: There’s a pretty large group of physicists who are interested in fundamental questions, but the pressure of competing for jobs and grants from standard funding sources means these really interesting questions are relegated to late nights and weekends. And that’s a shame because FQXi is interested in tackling questions about real science that have huge implications about our understanding of the world.

Q: Like what?

Aguirre: Like, for example, ‘What, if anything, happened before the big bang?’

Q: That certainly qualifies as a big question. How does it get answered?

Aguirre: 150 years ago we asked questions like, “Is the universe finite?” or “Did it always exist?” At that time we didn’t really have any intellectual structure to handle these questions. Today, because of the advances in our understanding of physics we have a perfectly good mathematical description of how the universe is finite. We now have the tools to decide if the universe is finite or infinite. In the 19th century we couldn’t do this. FQXi is addressing modern questions that once seemed hopelessly philosophical by applying a scientific framework.

Q: So take us to the second before the big bang.

Aguirre: Cosmologists believe that before the big bang there was a period of inflation. It may have lasted for one second, or for an eternity. What inflation does is repose the question. It doesn’t ask how the universe began, but rather how inflation ended.

Q: Ten years from now what do you hope FQXi will have accomplished?

Tegmark: We can’t say in advance that FQXi is going to discover x-y-z, but we’re very excited about FQXi having a major impact. Here’s why. The total amount of money spent on science funding in the US—NASA, National Science Foundation, etc.—is much larger than the FQXi budget of course, but that money almost exclusively goes into very low-risk research, e.g. physics research to devise a slightly better alloy for use in auto engines. The research goes where the profits are. But if you ask really basic questions about the origins of the universe, and other ultimate reality issues, the major funding agencies shy away. They don’t like risk. We feel we can have a major impact by focusing on fundamental questions that are considered too high risk to be covered by others. We can double the funding in these areas.

Q: What are the theological implications of FQXi’s work?

Tegmark: The intent of this program is not to fund theological research, but the point is to do physics research into very fundamental questions. Of course this work is of interest to people regardless of whether you come at it from scientific, theological, or philosophical points of view. There are many different reasons why they should all find the exact same research interesting.

Q: Give me an example?

Tegmark: The cosmological research into the origins of the universe is clearly of interest to theologians even though it started out as straight physics research.

Q: The book of life doesn’t start with earth.

Tegmark: Whatever happened in the early days of earth clearly was an important chapter in the story, but there were chapters before that. Crucial, in fact, because the stuff that earth was made of was in turn made by stars. Those stars died and the ashes from these stars—like a phoenix—turned into us. This is an example of how science has very much enriched our view of the cosmos. It’s much grander and much more elegant than we thought.

Q: What’s the boundary between physics and metaphysics?

Tegmark: It’s shifted. Of many areas that used to be considered beyond the purview of physics, physics has grown to accommodate some of them. Now, things like black holes are considered one of the least exotic explanations of the phenomena you see in the sky.
One of our key goals is if we can take some really exciting questions that are currently considered to be on the fringe of physics, and move them into the mainstream. Then the big funding agencies will take over from there and FQXi will have had enormous leverage.

Q: Are we in the golden age of physics? Or is it ahead of us?

Tegmark: There’s certainly a lot of gold ahead of us. Toward the end of the 1800s there was more than one physicist who said that physics was over. They predicted that the physics of the 1900s was going to be about moving another decimal point. Boy were they wrong!

Q: The scientific work of the last 100 years has fundamentally changed our understanding of the world.

Tegmark: Exactly. My grandmother passed away recently at the age of 102 and it just astounded me how different the universe she was born into actually was. When she was 20 years old, nobody knew why the sun was shining. They didn’t yet understand nuclear reactions. They didn’t know there were other galaxies. They thought it was a tiny universe, much smaller than we understand now. So with each advance in understanding come new questions. So we need to be very humble. We shouldn’t have hubris and think that we can understand everything. But history tells us that there is good reason to believe that we will continue making fantastic progress in the years ahead. For more about FQXi visit www.fqxi.org